Beltline traffic has been less horrible – so far – than Triangle commuters expected when the state Department of Transportation began rebuilding Interstates 40 and 440 across South Raleigh last year.
But our good fortune may soon end.
Starting in a week or two, road crews will push three traffic lanes to the outside – with some drivers relegated to the freeway shoulders – so they can demolish the inside lanes along 4 miles of I-40 between Lake Wheeler Road and U.S. 1 at Cary.
The worst rush-hour headaches will roll our way beginning in June, when drivers on the very busiest part of the I-40 Beltline – now four or five lanes wide for 4 miles east of Lake Wheeler Road – will be slotted into three narrow lanes without shoulders each way.
“That’s when we’re expecting the most impact,” said Dennis Jernigan, who oversees DOT construction in Wake and six neighboring counties.
We’ll be in this cattle-chute pattern until November 2016. DOT is almost halfway through a three-year, $130 million project to dig up and reconstruct 11.5 miles of the Beltline.
The makeover is nearly finished on 3 miles of I-440 at the Beltline’s southeastern elbow. As with the I-440 section, DOT will rebuild the inside lanes of I-40 first. Then the traffic lanes will be shifted inside so the outside lanes can be rebuilt.
Saunders exits to close
Thousands of commuters and truckers will feel the difference after this weekend, when DOT starts closing two off-ramps at the South Saunders Street interchange (Exit 298). Where I-40 drivers have used four exits in the past to make right turns onto Saunders, now they’ll double up – using a single combined exit in each direction, turning left or right onto Saunders.
The exit for westbound I-40 drivers turning south on South Saunders will close Friday night, followed a week later by the closing of the exit for eastbound I-40 drivers turning north – toward downtown Raleigh – on South Saunders.
“Folks will have to get used to the fact that if you’re coming from Cary and going downtown, there’s not two exits there,” said Joe Milazzo II, director of the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group that lobbies for road improvements. “There’s just one, so you’ve got to remember to get off at the first exit.”
I-40 carries 115,000 cars and trucks over South Saunders every day. It’s a heavily used exit for downtown workers and for southbound travelers on U.S. 70 and U.S. 401. This is one of several interchanges that will be redesigned as part of the Beltline overhaul.
Business leaders and local elected officials have urged commuters and employers for the past year to get ready for chronic traffic jams on the southern Beltline and to find ways to reduce rush-hour traffic volume. The region’s transit agencies (online at gotriangle.org) now operate 13 express bus routes – several of them started just for the Beltline project – for Triangle residents who live in one town and work or attend school in another.
Traffic engineers are warning that 30-minute delays could become the norm this summer for rush-hour trips on the I-40 Beltline. As drivers look for alternate routes, the spillover will spread traffic jams to other streets and highways, too – including Wade and New Bern avenues, Tryon Road, Western Boulevard, U.S. 70 and the northern I-440 Beltline.
No shoulder to cry on
The worst delays will come when an accident shuts down the Beltline. Even if it’s just a fender bender, it won’t be easy for drivers to pull out of the traffic lanes. The I-40 shoulders are temporarily converted to travel lanes or covered with concrete barriers.
“What I’m most concerned about is when there are crashes,” Milazzo said. “The impacts are going to be more pronounced than under normal operation.”
The I-40 lanes already have been shrunk to a width of 11 feet – down from the standard 12 feet – giving drivers less margin for error.
In the event of a minor accident, DOT recommends that drivers stay in their cars, drive to the next exit and pull off the roadway before calling police or getting out of the car.
“Move to a safe location, and don’t step out into traffic,” Jernigan said.
Many Beltline drivers are ignoring the posted work-zone speed limit of 60 miles per hour on I-40 – despite signs warning of a $250 penalty. But state troopers will start handing out more tickets this summer.
“The slower people go through that work zone, it decreases the likelihood of an accident,” Jernigan said. “Once we’re fully engaged on I-40, we’re going to be increasing the amount of enforcement that’s done out there.”
Find your way around #BeltlineJam delay
You know how to get to work in the morning and home again at night without consulting a map. But if you want to know the best route to take this morning, you might want to ask your smartphone.
A slew of free apps can tell you:
▪ Where the crashes and traffic jams are.
▪ How fast the traffic is moving.
▪ How long your trip will take right now – and, sometimes …
▪ A different route that will get you there sooner.
Be sure you check your phone before you start driving, so you won’t get distracted later.